SANTA FE — Ryan Stewart says he knows what it’s like to begin the school year in front of 30 students who want to know how much homework you’re going to assign.
Now he begins the school year with a new challenge — as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pick to lead the state Public Education Department.
She dismissed his predecessor, Karen Trujillo, just three weeks ago for failing to meet her expectations.
Stewart wasn’t a candidate the first time Lujan Grisham hired a public education secretary. But the governor said Monday that she’s confident his skills will be an asset as New Mexico pushes to turn around its school system.
“We have no doubt he is the right guy for the job,” Lujan Grisham said.
Stewart, 38, started his career teaching eighth grade in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving into executive positions with the Philadelphia school district and a national nonprofit education group. He suggested he will keep in mind the daily work of educators and students as he moves into one of the most prominent positions in the Lujan Grisham administration.
“I will always be guided by my experience as a classroom teacher,” Stewart said during a news conference in the Capitol.
Stewart is leaving his Philadelphia-based job as a regional executive director for Partners in School Innovation, a national nonprofit group dedicated to helping low-income students of color.
Stewart’s hiring comes as the state responds to a landmark court decision that found New Mexico is violating some students’ rights by failing to provide a sufficient education. The ruling, issued in July last year, focused on at-risk students, including Native Americans, English-language learners and students from low-income families.
The state is now moving to extend student learning time, raise teacher salaries and revise teacher evaluations, amid other changes to improve the school system.
Standardized test data released by the state last month shows that just 33% of students are proficient in English and 20% are proficient in math.
Stewart, nonetheless, faces increased expectations. Lujan Grisham and state lawmakers are pushing for results after authorizing an infusion of new money into public education this school year.
Stewart met with legislative leaders Monday morning at the governor’s residence.
Rep. Christine Trujillo, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said Stewart handled the “opinionated” lawmakers well — offering answers that sounded genuine, not rehearsed.
“He seemed really sympathetic and sincere,” Trujillo, a former teachers union leader, said in an interview. “He’s done his homework.”
Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired teacher, said she likes that Ryan Stewart (no relation) will bring a fresh set of eyes to education in New Mexico.
“What I’m excited about is how much work he’s done the last 10 years or so in looking at innovation around teaching with students who are struggling,” Sen. Stewart said. “That’s really been his focus in both of his last jobs.”
Mary Parr-Sanchez, a Las Cruces educator and president of the National Education Association-New Mexico union, said an early priority of the new secretary should be ensuring the success of K-5 Plus — a program that extends the school year for some students. Legislative analysts say the program has a record of positive results when carried out correctly.
“We have a lot of work to do in New Mexico to support our students and our teachers,” Parr-Sanchez said.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January, introduced Stewart during a news conference at the Capitol on Monday morning, shortly after Stewart met with the top deputies in the Public Education Department for the first time.
Stewart will make $150,000 a year, the standard salary for Cabinet secretaries. His appointment is subject to confirmation by the state Senate, though he can begin work right away.
He has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University and a doctorate in education leadership from Harvard. He said he attended public schools before that.
Stewart wasn’t a candidate or on the administration’s radar screen when Lujan Grisham first sought applicants for secretary of public education following her election last year.
But the governor suggested Monday that national experts in education had brought Stewart’s credentials to her attention since then.
“We stole him from Pennsylvania,” Lujan Grisham said Monday.
Stewart has experience as a traditional classroom teacher and as an administrator.
He taught algebra and science in Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, California, where he said about 80% of the students at the time also spoke a language other than English.
Stewart later moved to Philadelphia and served as executive director of the district’s Office of School Improvement and Innovation.
He joined the nonprofit Partners in School Innovation in late 2017.